Any oil companies looking to develop leases off the coast of California will have to get by the state government first, as the federal government has backed off from its attempt to control all offshore drilling.

The Dept. of the Interior decided Monday not to appeal the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals decision requiring the federal government to submit 36 offshore oil and gas leases to the state for review. This ruling reinforces the power of the California Coastal Commission to review the environmental soundness of any oil leases approved for development by the Minerals Management Service.

“This is a victory for California separate from any environmental issues,” Coastal Commissioner Pedro Nava said. “This law provides that California’s right to protect its coastline will be respected.”

Linda Krop of the Environmental Defense Center also said the decision is a victory for California.

“Now the state and its citizens will finally have a say in whether these oil leases will be developed,” Krop said.

Prior to 1984 when the oil leases in question were originally sold, they were not reviewed by the state. In 1990 congress expanded the rights of states to review federal actions that affect state coastal zones. This law was used when the federal government offered for sale 36 California oil leases in 1999. Energy companies purchased all the leases, Nava said. The Bush administration’s decision leaves the power to approve or reject any development with the state.

“This represents Bush’s retreat of his attack on the California coastal environment,” Nava said. “This still does not end the threat of oil expansion in our channel, it just means that California will be able to review the leases based on California law.”

Environmental activists have been advocating that the state let the leases expire rather than have the federal government buy the leases back. Once bought by the government, a lease could be re-sold and would have to be reviewed repeatedly by the state. By letting the leases expire, environmentalists say the state will not have to constantly re-review each lease, increasing the probability that the leases will not be developed.

Krop said she looks forward to complete review of the impacts that would result from development of the leases.

“These leases are located close to two national marine sanctuaries, a spectacular coastline and in the midst of a highly used fishing and recreational area,” Krop said. “We believe that environmental and state review will confirm that the leases should be expired, rather than developed, and our coast protected from any new oil and gas development.”

Nava said there has been much debate as to whether the leases should be allowed to expire, in which case the government would not have to buy them back.

“There is always the potential that the federal government will purchase the leases and pay the oil companies an agreed price,” Nava said. “If the lease is allowed to expire, then no money has to be paid.”